So quiet and unassuming was Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun that fellow Minnesotan Garrison Keillor once called him “the shy person’s justice.” It seemed ironic, then, that Blackmun found himself at the center of perhaps the most intractable and heated political debate of the past quarter century. The landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which he wrote for the court’s majority, effectively legalized abortion. “I’ll carry this one to my grave,” he once said of that opinion.
When he died March 4 at 90 from complications following hip-replacement surgery, Blackmun, who had also written groundbreaking opinions in the areas of civil rights and free speech, was indeed remembered mostly for Roe. But those close to him recalled a modest Minnesota Twins fan who delighted in wiggling his ears for children visiting the court and who brought a deep sense of compassion to the bench. “He never started with the law,” says Georgetown University law professor Chai Feldblum, a former clerk. He started with the people and how the law might affect them.”
A grocer’s son, born in Nashville, Ill., and raised in St. Paul, Blackmun won a scholarship to Harvard, where he briefly considered medicine before going on to law school. Marrying native Minnesotan Dorothy Clark in 1941—she and three daughters survive him—he spent time in private practice, as counsel for the Mayo Clinic and as a U.S. appeals court judge. President Richard Nixon tapped him for the high court in 1970—his third choice after the Senate rejected nominees Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell. “It always kept me a little on the humble side,” said Blackmun, who jokingly called himself “Old Number Three.” Three years into Blackmun’s term, Chief Justice Warren Burger, a childhood friend, asked him to draft Roe, which he never regretted. “I think it was right in 1973,” he said at his 1994 retirement, “and I think it is right today.”